Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Damnation of Theron Ware

Harold Frederic (1856-1898)

Show me some Realism from the 1890s and I'll show you an top-tier classic. Why? Well because the Gilded Age is the most fascinating time in American history. It's a bridge time that gets us to what we know as Modern America. Everything is changing and it's changing fast. Opportunities are opening and closing for different classes, races, and regions. Sleepy backwaters are being pulled into the Twentieth Century by the power of electricity and mass communication. Optimism and ambition rule the day.

This is where we find Theron Ware. He's a Methodist preacher in rural upstate New York (I'm pretty sure it's New York). Theron is ready to hear his named called for a plum position at the big Methodist conference but he's passed over and sent to Octavius, which is the opposite of plum, prune I guess. He and his pretty wife Alice move to Octavius and try to make the best of it. They are confronted, however, with very traditional members, a very stingy board of directors, and whole load of Irish Catholics. At every turn Theron is slowed by the church elders, they aren't impressed with his oratorical ability, they just want the old timey hellfire and brimstone. It is in this dark spot that three things occur which lead Theron down the road to damnation.

The first is the flower garden. His wife takes to gardening in a major way. She gets plants from a rich man in town who buys them for her and expects nothing in return. Theron thinks little of this arrangement at first. Next is his meeting with Celia Madden, an Irish Catholic with some unconventional views and some conventional hotness. The red head intrigues Theron, Catholicism is so foreign to him that she and her church hold a mysterious allure to the protestant preacher. The third is the boarding of two fundraisers for the church with the Ware's. The Soulsbys arrive in town to fire up the congregation and get some cash flowing into the debt-ridden church. Candace Soulsby is an engaging, smart, theatrical woman who's been around the block and ends of serving at Theron's guidence counsellor/physiologist.

The result of these events is a revaluation of Theron's life and its direction. The worldly Madden makes Theron feel like a rube. Soulsby makes Theron realize that not everyone has to be genuine in their religious fervor. The flower problem starts Theron into questioning his wife and imagining other ways to live. Theron's transformation is quick. He changes from a naive by sincere preacher of the gospel to a scheming, but pretty dumb, preacher who desperately wants to be cosmopolitan.

Theron's actions, stepping over the Catholic/Protestant divide in Octavius, becoming a stranger to his wife, courting Celia, backsliding in his religion, lead him to a desperate situation that nearly costs him his life and does cost him his livelihood.

Lots of cool stuff in this book. It's crazy how the Irish are treated as a seperate race from the WASPs in Octavius. Their ceremonies and even their church picnic with its lager beer might as well be from Mars. Celia is also a cool character. Modern and sophisticated in her outlook, but just as confused about what she wants as Theron. Her machinations with Theron are suspect and never totally fleshed out.

The themes here are great, we've got the role of women, religion and its relevance in a scientific world, race and class and how that dynamic affects relations in a small town.

Rating 9.5/10: Loved this book and would have given it a ten if Theron's breakdown had more depth. Still, loved the characters, the setting and the themes.

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